No. 16 – Forgiveness
“But whatever the mind can make of the future, it cannot silence a syllable of the past. It comforts us little to know that not even God can undo what has been done.” -Lewis B. Smedes
I have kept a mental list of what’s hurt me most from previous relationships. Not because I wanted to be angry, or to hurt them back, but because what they did scarred raw parts of me that were attempting to be known. Each time, I was unaware of the other person’s view of me, and missed the opportunities to better protect myself and my story. Once we have been scarred from someone that shares our faith, the reconciling can seem like a performance: whoever forgives quickest is the holiest.
In my mid-twenties, I purchased a home outside Nashville. The first time I looked at the home, the realtor looked at me and continually mentioned the next-door neighbor. Each mention was delivered with a grin and tilted eyebrows. Eventually, the neighbor introduced herself, and it grew clear everyone thought we were meant to be more than neighbors.
I felt a lot of pressure connecting with her as I did with most christians, as I was waiting for God’s magic to flip the switch of my sexuality. Beyond that, she seemed better than me. While I chain- smoked in my garage, she prayed over the weather. While I secretly watched pornography, she hosted family game nights. Our side-by-side homes both looked picture-perfect, but inside, the stories could not have been more opposite.
I felt pressure to believe this woman would love me in a way that healed my sinful hungers and desires. People badgered me with constant “I felt God tell me” and “I sense this is the one for you.” I listened to their stories and trusted their prompting. I believed the fairytale that, of all people, my next door neighbor would have the power and ability to heal my pain, by loving me.
She had recently ended a relationship, and on a friend’s prompting, I asked her out. She said she enjoyed my friendship, but had no romantic interest. Many of men would have felt his pride burn. For me, there was relief. The wondering, the pressure, the constant talks and prayers and prompting from others finally had resolution. With that, a new, beautiful layer of friendship began.
Over the course of the next few months, several things happened unexpectedly for both of us. The most profound for me was genuinely caring for a woman like I never had before. When we spent time together, and we were both relaxed, I felt lost and excited and loved hearing about her life and the transition she was going through. It was a pivotal time for me, as I was willing to share my history with someone. The whole history. I shared my story, the best way I knew how.
We grew close, and deepened our connection and dependence on one another. When she would leave my home, I would feel a twinge of sadness. In her presence, I loved who I was. I loved how we connected. The friendship meant a great deal to me.
After awhile, I came full circle – believing I loved her, like a real man should. I had misconstrued care for romance. She and I talked extensively about how we could possibly have a future. I became a pawn in my own story—hanging on to the belief that, if I could win this woman over, I’d finally be my healthiest, whole self.
The community consistently interfered, offering their visions, their words, their encounters with God about her and me, and the depth of our story. I believed that. This was round two, and while on the first round I was relieved that she said no, this time I was in full pursuit of someone with a desire to have them in every part of my life. Those parts had been isolated, untouched, and unknown for as long as I’d existed. I felt her presence tapped into something I had protected. I was willing for it to be exposed.
Eventually, we went on a trip together with a group of our friends. On the trip, we each drew lines in the sand and recognized that who we were, and who we were going to be, would most likely never blend. Potentially not in friendship either. It was an abrupt stop.
I was grateful to have moved on beyond my dreams of togetherness. The naivete shrank, which made meeting her for dinner a few weeks after our trip more enjoyable. There, we cleared the air. It went exceptionally well. We were both open. We were both kind. The conversation was split 50/50. I explained, “When you’d expressed concerns about my past, I thought that was your way to show willingness to work through that. Now I get my past was the reason you were not interested.”
She tightened her jaw, withdrew her engagement and said “Yes, it is, and I can’t believe you put me in this position considering what you’ve done.”
Here are the facts: She was so right on so many levels. At that time, my faith matched hers in believing being gay was a sin. The part that she unveiled was her distaste that I, wrestling with my sexuality, would approach her and expect love. That is where the pain comes in. I was fighting like hell and doing everything I knew to heal from this awful thing in me, and we shared that same faith. She had just trumped my faith and my healing by declaring me to be beneath her. It was the mirrored images of our homes again. Hers being bright, full of family, prayers and laughter. Mine being dark, a chain smoker in the garage, alone.
Later that evening, she apologized by email. She said her delivery did not come out right, and she was scared she’d hurt me. I let her off the hook from any wrongdoing. My confidence as a man, a christian and a person was crushed. I was tangled in my narrow story of doing what I had been taught to heal. I missed by a long shot how many saw me, because of what I wrestled with.
The friendship faded. Something in me severed when she uttered those words, and I did not attempt to connect with another woman for years. I no longer had the confidence to attempt to be a godly man.
I often thought of those remarks, and how there was nothing to undo them. Today I am grateful to see her position for what it really was. She knew what I was wrestling with, and knew it was too much for her. I developed that same awareness years later, and while our understanding of what that means differs, she was in a difficult and unfair position.
The pain lingered for years. Just before this experience, I’d had an argument with a friend who had wronged me. In his apology, he defended what a great friend he was to me, claiming “And not once did I ever judge you, when you told me you wrestled with your sexuality.” That was an added betrayal to years of conditions I had lived with within the christian community, I felt so much shame. I knew on some level, that among christians, my struggles are the worst ones.
So, when she expressed her rejection of my ideas of loving her and receiving love in return because of what I struggled with, she confirmed my shame with new bricks and mortar. I became solid as stone.
When I think of forgiveness, I immediately think of all the christian language around it. “If you don’t forgive, then God can’t forgive you.” I now believe God can forgive whoever God wants. No matter what I do, God would never hold a grudge.
No human has the right to tell another when or how to forgive. Forgiveness is an incredible gift —one of the best invitations we can receive for self-discovery. It’s not about the one who harmed us, but about us. It is about our ability to accept pain, grapple with it, and work through it, in order to become more healthy and whole.
That does not mean that forgiveness comes with a timetable, or a specific set of rules, but it does mean that we are tied to the pain. I felt I had forgiven her for what she said. I felt because I never think of those words, or feel that pain, that it was over. Then, I had a dream.
I’m walking around my beloved Wash park in Denver, when I feel a heaviness from the man walking in the opposite direction. His pace is brisk. He is going somewhere. I know that my old friend is in the park as well. All of the sudden I feel a surge of heaviness. I know he has done something—something to her. Bad.
I breathe hard and sweat through my layered clothes. He walks toward me. He is fading in and out of fog. He approaches me, senses my fear. He does not slow, and as he walks by, he says smugly “Calm down. She’s over in that ditch. It’s not like I killed her.”
I get to her just in time to help her wake up from the ditch, then me wake up from that dream. I felt baffled to have dreamt of her so many years later. I had somehow tucked away that pain, and it had become anger. That anger was sitting, resting, growing and attaching itself to my mind and heart and how I move through this earth. Little did I know, there was an attachment to her words still, and I had played out that hurt on myself in many ways. This time, I had been shown what my lack of forgiveness looks like: quiet, hidden rage that lashes out when least expected. That dream made clear that I remain attached to that pain.
I did not wake the next day and release the chain that ties us. I did not forgive her so that my heavenly father could forgive me. I did not say any special prayer, to let go of her words.
However, I did acknowledge what happens to our pain when left unprocessed. That day marked a time for me, where I became more keenly aware that, while I am known as a nice guy, there remain crevices of hurt that need cleansing. No matter who did what to me, it’s my responsibility to do the cleansing. That, I have done.
From forgiveness comes awareness that something has hurt us much more than we thought. If I were to go through all the evangelical nonsense on why to forgive, I would miss out on the growth that comes only from feeling that pain and knowledge of its impact on me. I recognize the pain is what needs to be addressed, and letting it go usually requires the ultimate forgiveness of the ultimate betrayer: me.
We take wounds from others and allow them to highlight lies we already believe about ourselves:
After he had the affair, he blames her, telling her she could have behaved differently to have made him happier. While she hates him for the affair, she turns the hurt inward, because she already believed she was not enough.
When he was abused as a little boy, and the abuser said “You seemed to enjoy this,” he learned that the abuse was his fault, and learned to abuse himself further.
When she always felt out of place, and then was shamed for being different, it compounded her belief that she does not belong.
When he gave his all, and was told he was not enough, he believed he was not wanted and lost the desire to want in return.
There is not one among us who has not experienced rejection or pain. Nobody is immune from feeling wounded by their divorce, or scarred from a meaningful friendship ending. But when we hold the other in contempt, we delay time, to avoid looking at our pain. We believe the lies that come with pain. We think we deserved it, and we inhale the self-hate, because it mirrors how we already felt about who we are. Until…
She stops and realizes his affair was his decision, and she gets to choose who to love.
He stops hurting himself and goes and rescues that little boy.
She moves back to that hurt, and celebrates that where she felt most out of place, was a place she has outgrown.
He lets go, and allows himself to want again. Because, the pain is no longer there and there is room for others.
This story has nothing to do with a young gal I once knew. Nothing. She’s long gone from my life, and the formerly painful story is now a redemptive chapter of my life that woke me up to the importance of living with a clean slate, the urgency to forgive myself, and the power of moving in to my pain.
I am not going to slander my own advice and tell you to forgive. But you deserve to live a life that reflects a soul that has been deeply cleansed with compassion, mercy and grace. That is hard to hide, even in your dreams.
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